The City of the Future, BFI Southbank Gallery, 23 Nov 2007 – 3 Feb 2008

Reviews: Richard Unwin, Frieze; Roger Luckhurst, Vertigo; Robert Hanks, The Independent; Brian Dillon, Modern Painters; David Shariatmadari, Art Review; Brian Dillon interview in Frieze.

Articles: ‘Phantom Rides’, Guardian Review; interview in Time Out.

See also The City of the Future project and ‘Sequence and Simultaneity‘, a lecture in October 2018.

The City of the Future echoed the thought that in preparing to visit the future, one might first explore the past. The resulting installation was a ‘virtual landscape’ of 68 short films from the period 1896 to 1909, mostly UK street scenes and views from moving vehicles, from the BFI National Archive. These were arranged on a network of maps and displayed on five screens suspended in a spatial relationship similar to that of the films’ locations. Highlighted place names on the maps led either to films, or more often to more detailed maps on which links to the films were arrayed. A ‘regional’ default sequence played on each of the five screens, and visitors to the exhibition could explore the landscape of c1900 by intervening in the sequences using the control functions of a DVD.

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre wrote that ‘around 1910 a certain space was shattered’. This space can be understood both as lived – the space of ‘common sense’, and the physical, architectural space of the city, transformed by the coming of the oil economy and the motor car – and as conceptual space, transformed (in, for example, ‘the moment of cubism’) by developments such as those in physics, in which the solidity of matter became less certain. In films, too, ‘a certain space was shattered’, as the short, long take, single space films of the first decade gave way to the edited, narrative form that still dominates today, in which space is assembled as a continuity of fragments. The films of the first decade of cinema are extraordinary in that their long takes of actually-existing urban landscape offer such extensive views of the space of their time, and because they offer these views at or just before the moment of that space’s transformation, a transformation brought about, at least in part, by the development of cinema itself.

It had struck me that spaces glimpsed in films from the past often appear unexpectedly familiar, and that since the invention of moving pictures, city space had not changed in quite the ways that some people had said it would, or should. As Winston Smith read in Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly and efficient – a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete – was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person.’ In the ‘advanced’ economies, this vision of the future, such as it was, had faded by the early 1970s, since when gentrification has become more familiar. Gentrification begins with the ‘discovery’ of previously overlooked value in existing city fabric, a process often involving artists and, sometimes, films.